A high school principal recently lamented to me that many of his students’ grades were cratering during distance learning. Much of the problem, he observed, was coming from classes whose grades were calculated using points: Work is assigned, work is not received, and the work gets a zero in the grade book. An algorithm takes over. Average these. Weight that. Out spits the failing grade.
Keeping our students engaged when we can’t serve them in person has, understandably, proven a challenge. For over a year now, teachers all over the country have been Zooming real hard and often feeling disappointed by what they’ve been getting back from students in return. But according to many school leaders I’ve heard from, that problem has been compounded by points-based grading systems.
Now is the time to ask straightforward questions about what we’ve learned in this extraordinary year: What worked? What didn’t? What was resilient? What was brittle?
In general, things that worked during the pandemic are things we should do more of. Things that broke down or exacerbated inequities deserve serious rethinking. Assessment and grading practices offer a rich vein for this kind of analysis.
Let’s step back: It’s not the points themselves that are the problem. Points are a perfectly valid way to add up the number of right and wrong answers in certain kinds of assessments—some questions do have right and wrong answers.
The problem is the stunted conception of learning that creeps in when points are pervasive: School is a game. Everything counts. No failure allowed while you practice. The ultimate goal is not learning or improvement—it’s to accumulate points.
“A points-based system,” one teacher might say, “is easy for everyone to understand.” Sure, but what, exactly, is being understood? Ask a student, “How are you doing in this course?” A typical answer: “I’m getting a 74.”
Where I see a course organized around points, I tend to find a learning environment in which the teacher and the students do not share clear answers to simple questions of purpose: What are our learning goals? What are the skills we are focused on improving? What are the ways a student can demonstrate progress?
The argument here is not to eliminate the use of points altogether but to put them in their proper place. Here are some ideas for doing that.
In many classrooms across all subjects, things that are small and routine—quizzes, homework—tend to be scored with points. This is convenient and defensible. When well-conceived, learning routines communicate the value of practice, and it’s important to have data on the quality and quantity of our students’ practice.
But all too commonly, that data gets aggregated into some kind of grade for “effort” or “homework completion.” And then that effort grade gets weighted into the final course grade. What was meant to be formative has now become summative. For many learners, this sums up their entire, painful relationship with school.
Resist the temptation to aggregate points—across multiple performances, across time. As a teacher, when I kept my students’ practice data discrete (or ignored the aggregations that grading software would do without my asking it to), I was better able to preserve an analytic lens when surveying evidence of student learning. My conversations with students were more nuanced. I found it easier to awaken them, rather than coerce them, into the understanding that practice and performance are strongly correlated.
The essence of a portfolio is simple: It’s a demonstration of skill through the curation of evidence. That’s why portfolios have proven to be such a flexible and effective form of assessment. They can wrap themselves around any kind of evidence (including items that have already been point-scored), and they enroll the learner in the curation of that evidence.
Look for ways to use or expand the portfolio concept in your classes. Although borrowed from the visual arts, the portfolio crosses easily into other disciplines, including math and science. It works on all scales, from a small unit to an entire course. Portfolios tend to move assessment in healthy directions: opening more paths to success, inviting more student engagement, focusing more on the work, and creating more opportunities for revision and redemption.
It’s not a coincidence that letter grades, GPAs, and most rubrics operate on roughly the same 4-point scale. In describing those levels, it’s hard to beat this quick guide, as explained by one wise teacher I know: An A means “you nailed it.” A B means “you got it.” A C means “you almost got it.” And a D or F tells us that “something isn’t working here.”
What should be simple can be mystified by points systems that are byzantine in their complexity, not to mention demoralizing in their impact on struggling students. In contrast, a one-page, 4-point rubric is perfectly suited to the task of determining a student’s course grade in a way that is both accurate and actionable. My students’ relationship to their grades changed dramatically when they used a rubric to self-assess. Their conclusions almost always matched my own. When they didn’t, important conversations ensued, and sometimes I would have to rethink my judgment.
Ideally, students see a grade not as something that a teacher gives or that a formula spits out, or even as something that is “earned.” Rather, it is a description of the student’s learning, as demonstrated through evidence.
To be clear, useful, and motivating, an effective grading system needs constant input from its end users. And it pays particular attention to the input from students for whom things are not working well. True, plenty of students will say that a points-based system works fine: They’ve got it figured out, so why change? But those aren’t the students to be designing for—and improving things for students who have been struggling usually improves things for everyone.
We must examine the ways the pandemic caught us off-guard. Many of our grading systems were geared for seat-time. The systems broke down when the seats were empty. Now that we know better, we must retool.
So take a hard look at the use of points in your grading practice. Try some techniques for containing or even eliminating them. If we come out of this pandemic adding up fewer points, we will have advanced toward an educational system where assessment is for learning, not for sorting.